The war in Syria and Iraq has so many sides it’s hard to keep track of the teams. In Syria, we’re fighting the Assad government, but we’re also fighting the rebels who are fighting the Assad government, putting us on both sides of that civil war.
But when you throw in the other countries that are taking sides, the program becomes even harder to follow. Recently, it seems that allies are on our enemy’s side while our enemies are on our side. To be on our side, it seems, you first have to let us sanction you.
Iran is groaning under the yoke of devastating U.S. led international sanctions and is facing the possibility of still more. But, though we are sanctioning them, we may also be working with them.
Though the Iranian foreign ministry has denied it, and the United States has rejected it, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatolloh Ali Khamenei said in September of last year that he approved of cooperation with the United States in the fight against ISIS. The BBC reports that “Ayatollah Khamenei has authorized his top commander to co-ordinate military operations with the US.” Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has also expressed this willingness to cooperate with America. Reuters reported Rouhani saying that “Iran could contemplate cooperating with its old adversary the United States on restoring security to Iraq.” Rouhani said that “We can think about [working with Washington] if we see America starts confronting the terrorist groups in Iraq or elsewhere.”
Though the States claims to have rejected Iran’s offer of cooperation, the evidence on the ground—or, in this case, in the air—suggests otherwise.
In December of 2014, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that Iranian F-4 Phantoms were backing Kurdish fighters and bombing ISIS targets inside Iraq. What is significant about this Iranian military action is that, according to Haaretz, it is “most likely also a sign of its coordination with the U.S. military which is leading the international coalition fighting ISIS.” Haaretz’s Anshel Pfeffer explains that “it is highly unlikely that fighter-jets would be operating in the same area where dozens of American planes . . . are also carrying out attacks against ISIS, without significant coordination.”
So, it appears that Iran has not only authorized cooperation with the States, it has exercised it. And, it has not only exercised it, it seems to have exercised it a lot. The Associated Press points out that Iran has surpassed the United States as Iraq’s most important ally in the fight against ISIS. The AP says that two to three Iranian aircrafts land at Baghdad airport every day. It says that “Iran carried out airstrikes to push militants from an Iraqi province on its border,” and that Iranian Commander General Ghasem Soleimani is organizing the Iraqi forces. Badr Brigade leader and Iraqi MP Hadi Ameri has gone so far as to credit Iran with saving Iraq.
Also instrumental in the war against America’s ISIS enemy has been Iranian and Syrian ally Hezbollah. Hezbollah has been a permanent resident of America’s Designated Foreign Terrorist Organizations list since 1997.
That Hezbollah has been an essential force against America’s enemy in the region did not stop Israel, America’s special “major strategic partner” in the region from killing five Hezbollah fighters and an Iranian general.
Earlier this week, an Israeli military helicopter crossed into Syrian territory and killed five Hezbollah fighters and Iranian General Mohammed Allahdadi. The New York Times reports that the killed Hezbollah fighters were key figures in the operations against ISIS, including Mohammed Issa, a leading commander of the anti-ISIS operation. General Allahadidi had been “advising Syria on how to fight terrorism” and, apparently, reported directly to General Soleimani.
The Israeli attack on forces that were fighting ISIS is Syria has been called a serious blow to the war against ISIS. That means that while our enemies—Iran and Hezbollah—are fighting for us, our major strategic ally—Israel—is fighting, on the other side, against us.
Israel has long viewed the civil war in Syria, not as an end, but as instrumental in the larger war on Iran. Sima Shine, who is in charge of Iran in Israel’s Ministry of Strategic Affairs, says that when weighing whether or not to remove Assad from power in Syria, one should weigh in the impact his removal would have on Iran. “The ‘devil we know’ is worse than the devil we don’t,” she said, adding that the Israeli security community believes that keeping Assad in power is worse than removing him. Shine said that, since Israel’s main enemy is Iran, Israel should examine events in Syria from the perspective of how they affect Iran: “If Bashar remains in power, that would be a huge achievement for Iran.”
Recently, UN observers in the Golan Heights have reported witnessing cooperation between Israel and Syrian rebels.
Since the attack that killed the Hezbollah fighters and the Iranian general, Israeli officials are on high alert for a retaliatory response. Israel has deployed its Iron Dome missile defense to its Northern border. Major General (res) Amos Yadlin, former head of Israeli Military Intelligence, said in an interview that Hezbollah “will have difficulty absorbing an incident like this [without responding].”
Whether Hezbollah, or even Iran, strike back or show restraint, that Israel should provoke Hezbollah in the lead up to Israeli elections is not entirely atypical or an outlier to the historical pattern. In the months preceding each of Netanyahu’s prior runs at reelection, Israel has found itself at war. Operation Cast Lead began on December 27, 2008, and Netanyahu was reelected on February 10, 2009; Operation Pillar of Defense began in November 2012, and Netanyahu was reelected in January 2013.
And as if Iran, Hezbollah and Israel don’t make it confusing enough, Russia may be on our side too. Like Iran, Russia’s is limping under crippling U.S. led international sanctions. Russia has been Assad’s greatest supporter in the Syrian civil war. It was Russia who came to Obama’s aid and negotiated an agreement on the removal or destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons.
Since then, Russian-American relations have deteriorated. But recently, America has become quietly receptive to a Russian initiative designed to get the opposing sides in Syria talking. America seems to be willing to go along with a Russian initiative that falls short of immediate regime change in Syria because of the fearful realization that removing Assad removes a large block in the dam that is holding ISIS back.
So for the second time in Syria, and the first time since America sanctioned Russia, Russia, too, seems to be on our side.
And that may not be totally surprising. Russia and America were on opposing sides originally in Syria because Russia supported the Assad regime and America wanted regime change. But now even Assad may be on our side in the war that began with the goal of removing Assad.
Both the Russian initiative and a separate United Nations initiative call for solutions to the Syrian conflict that fall short of demanding the immediate ouster of Assad. And the United States has quietly come around to considering and even welcoming both of them.
The Assad Regime
Primarily the worsening of the rebels tasked with removing Assad, but also the improving view of Assad, have brought about a shift in America’s side in the Syrian war from fighting with the rebels against Assad to fighting with Assad against the rebels.
This shift is not new born. The signs of the shift were already apparent a year ago, with the death of the moderate Islamic opposition, the increasing dominance by ISIS and the Al-Qa’ida linked al-Nusra of the opposition, the ongoing questions whether the Syrian government was behind the sarin gas attacks, and the seeming realization and acceptance by the U.S. and the Syrian opposition that the solution had to fall short of the complete and immediate removal of Assad.
There have even been hints that the U.S. and Syria are already cooperating on the battlefield: that Syria, too, may be on our side. As early as August 2014, there were reports that American intelligence was passing Syria information on the location of ISIS leaders for the targeting of air strikes with the German intelligence agency, the BND, acting as middleman.
So, here, it seems, is the lineup: Russia (under sanctions), Iran (under sanctions), Hezbollah (Designated Foreign Terrorist Organization), and Assad’s Syrian regime (target of U.S. regime change) are on our side; Israel (major strategic partner) is fighting the guys on our side!